A few months ago an interesting synchronicity occurred which caught my attention. Two pieces of popular culture both mentioned the idea of waiting, in highly idealized terms. The first (that I noticed) was Mumford and Sons song “I Will Wait for You.”
The second was the trailer for the movie “Cloud Atlas.” At minute 5:10 Frobisher speaks (via letter) to Sixsmith, saying that he believes there is a better place after death, and that he will be there waiting for him.
(Yes, I know I said I was going to review the movie “Cloud Atlas” and I never did. But the trailer was better than the movie and I couldn’t bring myself to say all that needed to be said about the movie; so the trailer and the book review will have to do.)
What is so interesting about waiting that two pieces of popular culture would both mention it in such lyrical terms? What deeper truth is being pursued when both mention the idea of waiting?
The quick answer (do wait for the longer one) is that we live in a society that hates to wait. We rush, rush, rush and never encourage restraint from immediate gratification and indulgence. Advertising is all about getting you to act NOW, before your judgment and virtue can act to keep you on track. We want it all now, now, now. Anything worth waiting for is lost. This habituates us towards vice, and it is ubiquitous – everywhere, all the time.
The messages of waiting provided by Mumford and Sons and “Cloud Atlas” are therefore very counter-cultural, and stand out all the more because of it. But there are even deeper ideas at play here too. And this leads to the longer answer.
First, waiting for something means it is worth waiting for. If it is a person, then by waiting you indicate that the person is worth it, that they have a dignity that you respect, and that you are willing to endure suffering on their account. Like a race, rather than getting somewhere first and thus being ranked higher, you instead finish together, thus declaring your equality. The Mumford and Sons song is fundamentally about respect. Waiting is worth it, the ultimate union too valuable, or even sacred, to risk messing up.
Second, waiting means you have faith that what you are waiting for will occur, or that the person you are waiting for will be able to make it. This is trust, and it reveals your faith in the other. If you have crossed an obstacle and then wait for the next person to make it (as in death, as in the “Cloud Atlas” trailer), you are indicating your trust that then next person will be able to make it too. They are strong enough, good enough, trustworthy enough, they can make it. Furthermore you have confidence in them, and thus you strengthen them with your confidence.
Third, patience (enduring waiting) is a form of courage. St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae II-II, Question 123, Article 6, discusses endurance as a kind of courage. St. Thomas sets everything in terms of battle, but he allows that life itself is a kind of battle to achieve the good, thus making the idea of courage more inclusive.
I answer that, As stated above (Article 3), and according to the Philosopher (Ethic. iii, 9), “fortitude is more concerned to allay fear, than to moderate daring.” … The principal act of fortitude is endurance, that is to stand immovable in the midst of dangers rather than to attack them.
Waiting can be a form of suffering and enduring suffering is difficult. In waiting, we are enduring a fear that we might not actually make it – we have trust that we will, ultimately, when the other joins us and we achieve the good together. But waiting is not easy. St. Thomas provides three reasons for his assertion that endurance is more difficult that aggression:
First, because endurance seemingly implies that one is being attacked by a stronger person, whereas aggression denotes that one is attacking as though one were the stronger party; and it is more difficult to contend with a stronger than with a weaker.
Secondly, because he that endures already feels the presence of danger, whereas the aggressor looks upon danger as something to come; and it is more difficult to be unmoved by the present than by the future.
Thirdly, because endurance implies length of time, whereas aggression is consistent with sudden movements; and it is more difficult to remain unmoved for a long time, than to be moved suddenly to something arduous.
While the battle analogies may distract somewhat, the point is that enduring suffering for the sake of the good is a virtuous act, it is the act of a courageous person, the kind of person who is strong enough to endure that sort of pain and suffering. By waiting, we endure suffering and become stronger because of it.
This strengthening of the self, combined with respect for the dignity of the other and faith that the other will be with you results in a potent trio: dignity, trust, and courage. Anything marked by those traits has got to be pretty good – and pretty worth waiting for.
Lastly, why is this something that people care about? Let’s start with children. Children can be terribly afraid of being left behind, of not being waited for. They know (even if they don’t want to admit it) that they are often slow, not as skilled, and very dependent on others. They need us to wait for them because if we do not, they will be left behind, metaphorically or even literally. For a child that is a genuine, terrible fear, not just the humiliating lack of capability found in slowness or lack of skill, but most especially the fear of being left utterly alone and helpless.
As adults we grow out of some of this fear because we grow in speed and skill, and we usually learn to trust certain people, or at least ourselves, so that aloneness is no longer so fearful. But the childhood fears still resonate. We still know there are things to fear, things which we need others to help us with. Love requires trusting another. So we fear that our trust is misplaced. Knowing that someone will wait for us strengthens our dignity (that we are worth being waited for), strengthens our faith that we too can make it, and strengthens our courage to face the obstacles that oppose us.
Speaking theologically, we have all these things and more with God: dignity, faithful trust, and courage. God respects us, that we are worth all of this trouble. God has faith in us, that we can do our best. God has courage (and encourages us) that we can make it. At the ends of our lives God will be waiting there for us.
Everything we humans do is just a weak imitation of these deeper theological ideals that are built into the fabric of the universe. A movie or song that contains these ideas taps far into the well of reality. And so when we experience them, we feel refreshed, invigorated, alive.
So, these ideas have a lot going for them. I am glad to see the idea of waiting being presented in popular culture, even if the full depth is only implicit. The ideas tap into the depths of our souls – they make terrifically meaningful art and deliver a moral message as well.